Toronto FC fans have been treated to a lot of things since Greg Vanney took over as head coach. There has been plenty of silverware won, memorable nights at BMO Field and some of the most iconic venues on the continent and no shortage of club legends have pulled on the shirt.
But, above all, Vanney-coached Toronto FC teams have scored goals. Even when they missed the playoffs in 2018, the reds were in the upper tier of the league’s offensive teams.
This year, however, despite some very blatant errors and shaky moments it was largely Toronto FC’s defending that saw them finish second in the entire league. The offence dried up, and with only three goals and one win in their final four matches, that has become a big issue.
This was the first season that Vanney started as the club’s head coach that The Reds finished outside of the Top 10 in goals per game, 12th. This has also been the worst season in terms of goals per game of the Vanney era.
As Toronto FC enter the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, perhaps the biggest question surrounding this team is a troubling one: where have the goals gone?
Even the source of the offence they already have has been a little concerning. The fact that Alejandro Pozuelo managed to go a five-for-five from the penalty spot is, of course, a positive sign for the club. But those five goals represent 15 per cent of the team’s goal tally—by far the highest percentage of any TFC team—and when they are subtracted from the equation, the picture gets even more bleak.
Some of this, of course, has just come down to being a bit unlucky. Despite having lower goals per game than last season, Toronto FC actually had a higher xG/game this season (1.56) than they did in 2019 (1.41) per FBRef. Only four teams in the league underperformed their expected goals to the extent that Toronto FC did this year.
Cincinnati.... underperformed just about everything.
As anyone who has watched this club over the past five years is aware, they have a filled their trophy case by asking questions of the keepers they face.
So just how timid was this year’s version of the team? Turns out, not very.
Toronto actually managed 5.04 shots on target per match which ranks third on the club’s all-time chart. But what else do we learn when we look at this chart...
Shots on target don’t automatically translate into success (RIP 2007, 2018). It’s true that you can’t score without getting shots on target, there still is the question of the quality of said shots...
Toronto converted just 28.4 per cent of those shots, leading to—you guessed it—a new low during the Vanney Era.
This was also the first time since 2013 that the club didn’t have a 10+ goal scorer. But I know what you’re saying, and I agree! MLS played 11 less matches this season than expected. Surely Pozuelo and Ayo Akinola would’ve potted one more to join the 10+ Club!
So let’s sneak Pozuelo and Akinola into the club through the kitchen, and see how they stack up v. the other members...
Akinola, who has dealt with hamstring issues this season managed to score his nine in just over 1,000 minutes while Pozuelo, who became the first player to start every MLS match for Toronto in a season, needed almost twice as many minutes.
Combined, the pair accounted for 18 of the team’s 33 goals which is the third highest percentage in club history. So that raises the questions, where was the help?
It goes without saying that Toronto FC have also been missing a massive piece of their offensive arsenal. If you factor in all competitions, this year saw Jozy Altidore play the least minutes of his TFC career, even when adjusting for a shortened regular season. As such, his goals contribution was also the smallest it has been. He was involved (scored on assisted) a mere 9.1 per cent.
Even when Altidore was available he underperformed. Like the club, part of this came down to luck as he led the team with -2.1 less goals than expected. But Toronto FC pay him a heck of a lot of money for his finishing ability, and it going missing this year certainly contributed to their offensive downturn.
When we break down the season into thirds, the story becomes even more clear. In the opening eight matches, the club was undefeated (earning an amazing 2.25 points per game). They had almost 14 shots per game, more than 6 shots on target and held a healthy majority of possession while completing more than 3⁄4 of their passes in the attacking third of the pitch.
When we look at the middle seven matches (including both Canadian losses) the offence remained positive—16 shots with 5.4 on target and still a healthy majority of the ball and near identical passing rate while attacking.
It was the homeward stretch when injuries finally foiled the then league leaders. Over the final eight matches, a depleted Toronto club faced constant presses from opponents, managing just over nine attempts per match resulting in an anemic 3.12 shots on target per contest. Possession, passing, and crosses all dropped off considerably in the final stanza.
How much of an effect will a healthy Jonathan Osorio, Altidore, Pablo Piatti, Richie Laryea and others have on this team as they hope to enter their final four MLS matches of the season?
It should be big, considering they are four of the top eight goals+assist per 90 providers on the team. This doesn’t even take into account the other things that Osorio and Piatti in particular provide for the team in terms of possession and transition.
If some of those players aren’t available, however, the team will likely go back to being too heavily reliant on Pozuelo and Akinola for goals. Both have been excellent this season of course, and one will likely win MLS MVP.
But Toronto FC were taught a harsh lesson in Vanney’s first year in charge, 2015, when they went into the playoffs a team too reliant on a couple of players. They are going to need others to step up in a hurry, or suffer that same early exit fate.